SAN JOSE, Calif. – The message to the San Jose Sharks from the coaching staff and management was the same at the start of training camp as it was when last season ended in a second straight Western Conference finals loss.
If the Sharks are going to get over that hurdle and win the Stanley Cup for the first time, they can’t wait three months to get going.
A sluggish start last season left the Sharks in 12th place in the West in mid-January. A furious finish to the regular season earned San Jose a fourth straight Pacific Division title but might have drained the tank when it was needed most in the post-season.
“We have to hold them accountable,” coach Todd McLellan said Saturday after the first practice of training camp. “We have to make sure we’re pushing probably earlier this year than we did last year. We let them off the hook a little bit too much. That started already yesterday. It was very clear from our perspective what we expect from this group, and anything other than that is unacceptable.”
The Sharks made it through two playoff rounds before losing in five games to Vancouver last season as they wore down following a seven-game, second-round series against Detroit. San Jose had been swept in the conference finals the previous year by eventual champion Chicago.
The Sharks were the only team to make it that far in each of the past two seasons, but that’s little consolation for a franchise that has been near the top of the league the past decade but is still looking for its first trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
“There’s just no recovery from bad starts,” defenceman Douglas Murray said. “We didn’t have a bad start for an average team. But for our goals and what we’re looking to do here it was a terrible start for us. It probably took a lot of extra effort in the latter part of the season to get us into the right position for the playoffs. We wasted too much focus and energy doing that. It’s better to take it out in the playoffs than to have to use it in the regular season.”
The message about fast starts has been heard by the players, who say that means being prepared each day before taking the ice for practice and bringing a heightened focus each day during training camp.
“Some guys are fighting for positions, some guys aren’t,” defenceman Dan Boyle said. “But we need to lead by example. For us older guys it’s definitely not OK to take a day off. It’s important to set the right example for the younger guys.”
General manager Doug Wilson made some big changes in the off-season, trading a pair of top forwards in separate deals to Minnesota. Wilson dealt Devin Setoguchi in a package for All-Star defenceman Brent Burns and swapped Dany Heatley for the speedier Martin Havlat.
The Sharks also signed defencemen Colin White and James Vandermeer, turning what had been a weakness on the blue line to a strength. Those three new defencemen take the place of Niclas Wallin, Ian White and Kent Huskins.
With Boyle, Murray and Marc-Edouard Vlasic back, and youngsters Jason Demers and Justin Braun in the mix, the Sharks have more defensive depth than they’ve ever had.
“This may be the most competitive training camp we have had here,” Wilson said. “We told our players, if you don’t like competition, you’re in the wrong business.”
San Jose also signed forwards Michal Handzus and Andrew Murray to help bolster a penalty-killing unit that ranked 24th in the NHL last season at 79.6 per cent.
“Every team, it doesn’t matter if you win the Cup or don’t make the playoffs, teams are going to change,” captain Joe Thornton said. “‘We like our additions and it’s exciting to start the season.”
Goalies Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki didn’t practice because of injuries. Niemi is day to day after having a cyst removed, while Niittymaki will be out for much longer while dealing with a groin problem that has lingered since last season.
Newly acquired forward James Sheppard is also out after having off-season knee surgery, and Vlasic missed practice with an illness. Handzus didn’t practice, two days after attending the funeral in Slovakia for former teammate Pavol Demitra.